Leo Castelli (1907-1999) was famously charming and famously hard to really know. Arguably one of the three most influential 20thcentury U.S. dealers (Alfred Stieglitz and Sidney Janis are the other two), he brought a European elegance and grace to a profession that is all too often home to the egotistical and sharp-elbowed. In the process, he helped American art, particularly the work that followed Abstract Expressionism, to attain its central place in modern art history. That he was a kind, sensible and generous man who truly cared for his artists only adds to his luster.
In Leo and His Circle, Annie Cohen-Solal, a former cultural counselor at the French embassy in New York and the author of a well-received biography of Jean-Paul Sartre, sets the dealer’s life and ancestry on a wide and impossibly cluttered stage. Indeed, her approach is historically conscientious to a fault. Drawing on research conducted by 23 assistants, she frequently clouds the reader’s view with the kind of “look what I know” trivia that can kill a good story.
Castelli’s life separates itself into three reasonably clear divisions: his early days in Europe (he was born in Trieste in northern Italy and spent his youth in Italy, Austria, Romania and France); a brief middle period in New York, from the mid-’40s (after his WWII stint as a volunteer in the American army) to the mid-’50s, when he was establishing himself with the city’s avant-garde; and the era that started in 1957, when at age 50 he opened his own New York gallery. Cohen-Solal follows this general guideline, dividing her over 500-page text into three sections, titled “Europe: Persecutions, Wars, Ruptures, Displacements,” “The Years of the Metamorphosis” and (with characteristic overreaching) “Absolute Leader of American Art.”
Born Leo Krausz (the family was forced by Mussolini’s racial laws to change its name to an Italian one—Castelli was his mother’s maiden name), the future dealer came from a moderately prosperous merchant and banking family, and spent the first part of his life largely as a well-heeled ne’er-do-well. In 1933, his great good fortune was to marry Ileana Schapira, later to become the important dealer Ileana Sonnabend. This alliance quite possibly spared him the horrible fate that his parents met during the war (weakened by years of hiding and near starvation while eluding Nazi and, later, Soviet occupiers, his mother drowned while trying to escape across the Danube in Budapest, and his father died in a hospital there just weeks after the ceasefire). Ileana was the 18-year-old daughter of Mihai Schapira, an extraordinarily wealthy and indulgent Romanian industrialist, who bankrolled many of his son-in-law’s activities in Europe and later in New York, and whose money and resourcefulness (along with some very lucky breaks) got the whole Schapira clan out of Europe and onto American soil in 1941—an exciting tale well told by Cohen-Solal.
Other aspects of her approach in Part I are less compelling, however. Is it really necessary to give us every single detail of Castelli’s childhood that could be dug up, to explore the complete history of his immediate family, his ancestors and, as formative context, Judaism in Italy (as well as Austria and Hungary) from the Renaissance on? Isn’t there a limit, in a biography, to how much we need to learn about the cities of Trieste, Vienna and, for good measure, selected Hungarian and Romanian precincts? Moreover, the author’s emphasis on the collective experience of European Judaism strikes me as highly problematic, not just because much of it functions as mere filler, or because Castelli paid his Jewish heritage very little attention, but because Cohen-Solal seems to be making the case that Castelli’s success as a merchant was somehow in the blood, that being Jewish predisposed him (despite her own abundant evidence to the contrary) to being good with money. She writes:
His is a family story that overlaps the history of European art and carries us back to Renaissance Tuscany, where his ancestors probably crossed paths with Piero della Francesca and Vasari. This background suggests the hypothesis that Castelli’s exceptional skill at negotiating between money and art is a long-cultivated, almost genetically based, gift forged by centuries of political and social persecution.
The second part of the book is the most intriguing, illuminating the years during which Castelli found his calling. Having studied law in Milan without much enthusiasm and worked halfheartedly in the insurance business in Trieste, he now became the manager of his father-in-law’s knitwear factory, and began to cultivate an interest in art dealing and collecting. His passion blossomed during hours stolen from his office job—through a program of self-education, largely at the Museum of Modern Art. Castelli’s growing involvement with art led him into the unconventional milieu of the emerging Abstract Expressionists. He and Ileana became early members of The Club—an honor rarely granted to nonartists. Castelli, by virtue of his sophistication, charm and eagerness, could move among many groups: he was at home with European émigrés, uptown society types, downtown artists, and a wide variety of dealers, curators and critics. He became a fixture on the New York art scene, not yet as a dealer but as an intermediary, a go-to guy, working with (and learning much from) Sidney Janis, serving as Nina Kandinsky’s agent for her late husband’s work in the U.S. and helping to organize the famous 9th Street Show in 1951, an exhibition that greatly enhanced the reputation of Abstract Expressionism. Castelli’s connection to the Abstract Expressionists was strengthened by his largesse (he didn’t have much money, but he had more than they did) and the entertaining he did both in the elegant townhouse (owned by his father-in-law) where he lived at 4 East 77th Street and in his house in East Hampton. (Willem de Kooning stayed with the Castellis in the summer of 1953 and used their porch as his painting studio.) Important, too, was his rapport with John Graham, the influential and intensely charismatic Russian-American painter and theoretician. Graham, an inspiration to many younger artists, lived in the townhouse with Mihai Schapira’s ex-wife, Marianne, and became, after a fashion, Castelli’s second father-in-law.